Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

Why I decline to sign ‘prophetic’ declarations

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(RNS) — I am frequently invited to sign a declaration on some topic of public concern. These days more often than not I decline to add my name to the list of signatories, even though I often actually agree with what the statement says.

Sometimes it is a call — usually issued by academics or church leaders — for peacemaking. Or it is a petition about some justice-related matter.

I typically read the statement carefully. Often I get the impression that the only folks who will read the document carefully are like-minded people. The declaration may be framed as “speaking truth to power,” but the “in power” types will really pay no attention. The drafters of the petition may realize that, but they take seriously an obligation to be “prophetic.”

I talked a lot about being “prophetic” in my early days of social activism,” but I don’t use that word much these days. A while back I did a word search in my laptop files for everything I have written over the past couple of decades, and I did not find myself at any point explicitly advocating being “prophetic.” When I have used the word at all, I have typically been quoting other people, or discussing biblical “prophetic” literature, or arguing with my Mormon friends about whether a church these days has to be headed up by someone who is officially labeled “Prophet.”

A cynic might suggest that having served for two recent decades as a seminary president, I was attempting to raise money in circles where being “prophetic” does not attract donors with considerable giving capacity. I have tried to stay honest with myself about that possibility.

But I do have what I consider to be some good theological reasons for avoiding engagement in “prophetic” activity.

In ancient Israel there was often a tension between the prophets on the one hand and the kings and priests on the other. In the New Testament, though, there is not any clear call for leaders to function as prophets. Indeed, there is a solid theological tradition that says that the three “offices” of prophet, priest and king have come together in Jesus. The role of teacher seems to have become more important — as the Catholic Church recognizes in emphasizing the importance of “the magisterium.” And the Catholic Church explicitly recognizes that one test of the effectiveness of a doctrinal statement is whether it is “received.” Was the doctrine clearly stated? Has it been seen as important to the life of the believing community? Does it lend itself to confusion or to clarity about what is intended?

I don’t question that there are moments in history when we have no choice but to utter unqualified prophetic verdicts. This was certainly the case in Nazi Germany, when the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred for his opposition to Hitler, while so many in the German church had made their compromises with the regime. He, along with the great theologian Karl Barth, knew that there are times when we must proclaim a bold “No!” to a specific state of affairs, even if in doing so we are voices crying in the wilderness.

But outside of those extreme situations I see it as presumptuous — and a failure to take full advantage of the teaching opportunities open to us — to see ourselves as simply making pronouncements. If we have something important to say, we should pay careful attention to how best to bring people to see things our way.

Actually, when we see functioning as prophets as our only recourse, we may want to ask whether we got to that point because we have failed in our teaching efforts.

Those of us who teach students know that when we plan an introductory course in some important area of intellectual life, we do not say everything we know in the first lecture. Students need to be invited into an exploration of new and difficult subject matter, and they need to be instructed in the basics before getting into the complexities. An effective teacher does not say everything she knows on the first day. Good teaching does not consist simply in saying true things, but in leading people into the truth, even if that takes some time. And much can be gained by emphasizing, wherever possible, the continuity between the new areas of learning with what students already know.

And classroom teachers even need to be a little careful with the idea of “leading people into the truth.” We are all learners. Some of the best courses I have taught have been ones where I came away with the sense that I learned as much as — maybe even more than — my students in the process.

Much the same can be said, I think, for the public teaching role — as exercised by academics, pastors, denominational officials, laity leaders, and the like. Our public pedagogy requires a measure of empathy and reassurance toward those we want to influence — as well as a humble recognition that we ourselves are learners!

I find these characteristics often missing in those religious leaders who emphasize the need for “prophetic” statements on various topics.

If our goal is simply to say a lot of true things, then we can take comfort in the fact that we have performed our prophetic responsibilities when we issue straightforward public statements that come off as critical, say, of the concerns of many other religious folks.

But if our assignment is to teach the truth, then we have a more difficult — and more highly nuanced — task. Good teaching requires patience — a trait that we don’t often associate with prophets!

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

12 Comments

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  • “Good teaching does not consist simply in saying true things, but in leading people into the truth, even if that takes some time.”

    Well said.

  • I really wish my SBC “preacher” brother would read and follow this statement. It is a powerful statement of truth.

  • Sometimes “prophetic” statements such as the Nashville Statement from Evangelical Christians earlier this year and the Filial Correction to Pope Francis from Conservative Catholics, expose more about the writers than should be exposed. I wrote essays for the Religious Tolerance organization about the problems with these two pieces. http://www.religioustolerance.org then click on the new essays tab on the left and scroll down through the months. I think they are in the October section.

    I am not sure the writers let alone those that signed the pieces actually stood back and read the finished product!

  • The Nashville Statement was (and is) a prophetic statement in the best
    sense of the word.

    The participants didn’t run around yapping, “prophetic statement.” Instead, they worked very hard on explaining in simple effective sound-bites, what the Bible says and doesn’t say regarding the LGBT issue. (And no, Susan Humphreys has NOT refuted those individual Bible points in her RT essays).

    Meanwhile, I recommend the Presidential Medal of Freedom for all Nashville Statement participants. Effective immediately.

  • The Nashville Statement is severely flawed. The people that signed it show apologize to the world and more importantly apologize to themselves for supporting such a travesty.
    1st. I pointed out in my essay in their opening statement they show they don’t understand what it is that makes us human, what our humanity is! They equate humanity with the ability to procreate, and the sexual organs a person has. We are so much more than that.

    2nd. Their arguments expose 3 fatal flaws, conflicts with 3 foundational elements of their Philosophy. The conflict between God being the creator that creates all humans as they are. Between the literal reading of the Bible. and Between the basic nature and characteristics of God.

    IF God creates all humans as we are, than God created homosexuals to be the way they are AND he created me to be an Atheist and obviously wants me to keep writing tp expose the flaws with Christian Theology. BUT if this is the case and God wrote every word in the Bible and those words are to be understood literally and are good for all people and all times–one has to ask what sort of a MONSTER would create a person to be a homosexual ONLY to condemn them for being what he created? AND the third contradiction is with of course the claims made for the nature of God as loving, compassionate, forgiving, PERFECT in every way. It is obvious a perfect God wouldn’t have done such things, create homosexuals ONLY to condemn them in a book he also created. An imperfect God might do such things.

    Check out my essays at http://www.religioustolerance.org then click on the new essays tab on the left and scroll down till you find them in October, I think!

  • Actually, all three criticisms are totally wiped out.
    Your criticism #1 dies instantly, merely by quoting Gen. 1:26-27. You see, Christians DO know “what it is that makes us human”, we DO know what it is that forever separates us humans from all animals: the image of God.

    So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)

    We can also wipe out your #2 and #3, by noting that God created everything (including humans) “very good” (Gen 1:31). It was us humans, not God, who brought sin & death into the world (Rom. 5:12-17). God did NOT create homosexuals, adulterers, atheists, etc.. WE choose to embrace sin.

    Ain’t God’s fault. God’s the one trying to rescue us from that mess.

  • Mouw is answering as if the only people who read statements are other evangelicals. But at the moment, with so many evangelicals supporting and defending Roy Moore and Donald Trump, the reputation of evangelicalism is very much at stake across a much larger world. And the silence of so many leaders is puzzling and disturbing. I am disappointed that the evangelical leaders around me have been utterly silent when so much has happened this year. They aren’t so much “pro-Trump” as apparently voiceless on matters large and small. When it came time to sign the Nashville Statement, somehow a number of evangelicals found their voices. Not for refugees, not for Dreamers, not for the planet, or for healthcare for most Americans — but against gay marriage.

  • I didn’t quote from Genesis so your criticism falls flat. Second there are many Christians that don’t agree with the Nashville Statement for reasons of their own. So claiming Christians know something doesn’t mean that the Nashville Statement supported that position. As I point out the opening statement shows their opinion of what makes us human is our ability to procreate and our sexual organs.

    Your next argument points out the conflict between the Bible and the belief that God created humans as they are, as you say he created them “very good”. Since he created homosexuals as they are that means they are “very good” and what sort of a crackpot would create someone he thought was “very good” only to turn around and condemn that person as not being good1

    Thanks for proving my points.

  • Umm, there is NO claim that you have quoted or cited from Genesis. That was ME who did the quoting and citing.

    (Meanwhile, you did say the key sentence: “what it is that makes us human.” Gen. 1:26-27 is the direct & unrefuted answer to your sentence; it’s so vital that even Jesus quoted from it. That’s why I cited it.)

    As for some Christians not agreeing with the Nashville Stmt, you’re right. But you also see that the Methodists have burned-up worse than the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor, because they allowed a chain reaction of disbelief and disobedience of God’s Word to reach Critical Mass. Now they done blew up.

    Finally, you continue to ignore the detrimental effects of Adam-&-Eve’s sin upon God’s very-good-created humanity. Can you tell me why you do that?

  • There is no God Mr. Floydlee. The God you believe in is nothing more than a figment of your imagination. The Bible is the work and word of men who had their own agendas to push.

    We know that beauty is only skin deep. It is what is inside that is important! NOT who we look like on the outside!

    I haven’t ignored human shortcomings, I just know that they don’t stem from Adam and Eve’s sin!

  • I respectfully disagree with the author’s definition of “prophetic”, and with the notion that they are fitting only in extreme situations where there is no hope for teaching. In both testaments, prophets and teachers lived simultaneously. In II Chronicles 36:15-16 we read that God was patiently sending prophets to His people for many years until finally “there was no remedy”. He did not wait to send them until good teaching, as the author defines it, was useless. The prophets themselves were teachers, even if they were “simply making pronouncements”. They spoke about God and His ways. They warned against danger. They announced future events. In the New Testament, too, prophets and teachers ministered at the same time (see Acts 13:1).

    The author says: “Good teaching requires patience — a trait that we don’t often associate with prophets!” I myself do associate patience with prophets. Moses patiently endured a stiff-necked people who repeatedly lost faith in God and him and turned against both. Elijah patiently endured persecution and a situation wherein the cause of God may have seemed hopeless. Jeremiah also patiently endured rejection, persecution, and a people who would not listen to him and repent. I will refrain from citing other examples.

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